Game Library: “Speak in Turn”

Speak in Turn is a short-form game with a lot of gifts to offer including promoting active listening, generous scene work and nuanced communication. I’ve paired it with the concept of Bulldozing as it can also serve to address this tendency if you are working on ceding more control in your scene work.

The Basics

Players work in teams (four players seems to be optimal). Before the scene begins, players number off to establish an order. For the duration of the scene, players must speak in their assigned order: once they have contributed a sentence or idea, they cannot make another verbal choice until the sequence has completed a rotation.


Players receive “a road trip” as the initiating offer and determine to speak in the order A, B, C then D. They construct a car as the lights transition, with B occupying the driver’s seat, A beside them and C in the backseat. D is currently offstage.

Player A: (looking anxiously out the window) “This is the third time we’ve stopped in two hours. We’re never going to make it to Sterling.”

Player B: (checking their watch) “I’m sure I can make it up on the highway.”

Player C is on their cell phone in the backseat. They throw their phone on the seat with frustration.

Player C: “The cell phone reception here is terrible.”

They all sit in an awkward silence as Player A offers Player C some chips that they have pulled out from a bag on the floor.

Player D: (yelling from offstage) “I’m 25 cents short!”

Player C sighs, looks at the others and with a shrug gets out of the car to go and assist.

Player A: “It’ll be a minor miracle if those two don’t kill each other before we get there.”

Player B: (shooting A a look) “You could have just said if you didn’t want to come. I know they’re my family, but…”

Player A goes back to eating chips. Player C and D eventually return to the car and get into the back seat…

The Focus

Like most games that provide a verbal restriction it is important to focus on the physical and emotional reality of the scene. If you just passively wait for your turn to speak again, the scene will quickly feel like it is filled with unnecessary empty air. At its core, this is a justification game where players need to craft a detailed world in which their dialogue choices (and silences) have a meaningful context.

Traps and Tips

1.) Make your dialogue count. There can be a temptation to just speak when it’s your turn in this game, but the scene usually comes to life in more interesting ways when you make sure that every line counts and is impactful. If it’s your turn to talk but you don’t have a reason to just yet, let the tension or interest build through your physical and emotional choices. Exploring subtext and relationship specifics are the hidden gifts of the game. This also holds true if you want to talk but it’s not your turn yet. A lot can be said with an intense look, shift in body language, or well-timed stage action. Also be careful of naming the game: “Why isn’t anyone talking?” This will (sadly) likely get a laugh, but it’s not a particularly helpful or earnt one especially if it is in lieu of committing to the unfolding action.

2.) Build the game patiently. It’s certainly important to model and “teach” the audience the rules of the game as the scene starts, but as is typically the case, the scene should be your primary concern, especially during those opening moments as you’re establishing the premise, relationships and the world of the play. For example, starting the scene without the first designated speaker can be delightful if this choice is made carefully and knowingly, but it can also strand your fellow players onstage without any way of talking to each other. Generally the game benefits from reserving innately more challenging dynamics until later in the dramatic arc, especially if this form is relatively new to your team or ensemble. The scene will ultimately benefit from strongly established details that will contextualize and inform these later moments. There is also an important distinction between discovering these games and just rushing to the stage gimmicks that you’ve applied before. The former will typically land much better than the latter which can tend to ignore important scenic rhythms that are building organically.

3.) A little torture goes a long way. In tension with the above suggestions I would offer that once you’ve got a firm foundation for the scene, a little playful shivving or “torture” can add a new level to the scene. We can tend to forget that the audience finds delight in a little struggle and that this is a large part of what makes improvisation so immediate and inviting as an art form. Choices such as an unexpectedly timed exit or a character who suddenly becomes reluctant or unwilling to talk can certainly add a joyful level of challenge especially when the company has found an energized and effective momentum. Companies have varying attitudes and comfort thresholds when it comes to this kind of approach, but a little playful mischief serves well in this particular form. When the game is too seamless, it can oddly make the scene fall a little flat. It is also nearly inevitable that someone will speak out of turn (often in the opening moments of the scene) so it can be helpful to have a strategy in place if this occurs. I tend to have a host or emcee quickly note any infractions in such a way that doesn’t needlessly stall the building action.

4.) Explore different line lengths and rhythms. There isn’t a set expectation of line length in this game – you’ll note it’s not defined as each player gets “one sentence” each, for example. It’s possible, then, for a character to take their turn to offer a brief monologue although perhaps avoid this as your stock choice if you’re working on overcoming your bulldozer tendencies. On the other end of the spectrum, characters could also elect to make their speech act an utterance, such as a grunt, moan or gasp. You’ll just want to make sure you are providing clear “outs” to your sentences so that teammates clearly know that your intent is to pass the focus. It can also be exciting to vary the rhythms between each line of dialogue as the scene can feel stilted if you fall into a relentless pattern of predictable pauses and line lengths. A rotation of short lines in quick succession can create a wonderful juxtaposition to more measured sections. Or alternatively, a character may make a style or tempo of speech part of their own individual game. I’d just echo the above warning about automatically inserting rehearsed dynamics rather than being open to finding them in the scene. While the featured game is verbal in nature, don’t neglect the fact that strong physical and emotional offers can be made “out of sequence”.

In Performance

This game moves in and out of rotation in my current improv home but I’m always happy when we re-remember it! It’s an improv handle that can also facilitate interesting and nuanced storytelling on the stage which isn’t always a given unfortunately. If you are a voluminous or reluctant speaker, it can also help you break your own patterns as the scene really demands “equal” collaborative participation by its very design.

Cheers, David Charles.
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© 2021 David Charles/ImprovDr

Connected Concept: Bulldozing

Published by improvdr

A professional improvisational practitioner with over thirty years experience devising, directing, performing, teaching and consulting on the craft of spontaneous (and scripted) theatre and performance.

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